Charting a path to stability

Museum: Low attendance and budget troubles have rocked Port Discovery, but its captain has a strategy to keep it afloat.

July 14, 2002|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

Nearly a year after he was tapped to salvage Baltimore's foundering children's museum, Alan M. Leberknight gazed out at a sea of young visitors and proclaimed Port Discovery on the road to recovery.

"It's in damn better shape than it was when I came here," said Leberknight, who started at Port Discovery in August, a freshly retired dean of Towson University's College of Business and Economics, replacing Kathy Dwyer Southern as chief executive.

He acknowledged that there's a long way to go before the museum achieves the success its founders envisioned.

Attendance at the museum, which opened 3 1/2 years ago with great fanfare, has decreased steadily. Budget constraints have prompted the elimination of three positions since May, two of them occupied by people who had been with the museum since it opened or nearly that long.

In addition, the museum will cut back its operating hours in September.

Despite its troubles, Douglas L. Becker, Port Discovery board chairman and chairman and chief executive of Sylvan Learning Systems Inc., an international education company based in Baltimore, said the museum is in no danger of closing as did Columbus Center and the City Life Museums, which had operated nearby.

"There is not one moment of consideration about whether we stay open or not," Becker said. "We're open. We'll be open for years. I was responsible for raising $35 million to get Port Discovery open, and I'm committed to do whatever it takes to see that Port Discovery thrives."

Leberknight says the museum has turned a corner and is well on the way toward establishing itself as an attraction that people will want to revisit.

"We've got this place stabilized," he said. "We're turning it. We're going in the right direction."

Crucial to that turnaround is building a repeat clientele, which museum officials plan to do through themed exhibits that would change several times a year. Also crucial is expanding offerings for younger children, particularly those up to age 4. Port Discovery and children's museums across the country are finding that visitor age is declining.

The museum, financed in part by taxpayers, had about 25,000 paid visitors last month, which Becker said exceeds last year's June attendance. Museum officials typically disclose attendance numbers only at the end of the calendar year and do not give monthly breakdowns. But Leberknight said he hopes for 80,000 in attendance in July and August combined.

The success of the summer, with its camping theme "Camp Exploramora," is important because it is the museum's first effort at creating a unifying theme that would change periodically, giving people a reason to return, Leberknight said.

The summer program offers children camplike experiences. A fall theme related to magic and myths will incorporate Harry Potter and Halloween. A spring theme related to globetrotting, with exhibits about different cultures, is being planned, he said.

"This idea of having a theme that plays out through the museum is new, but I think it's a very good idea," said Janet Rice Elman, executive director of the Association of Children's Museums in Washington. "It makes the museum new and fresh. ... I think it's a good strategic idea.

The new direction raises the bar for Port Discovery, Elman said.

"Their visitors are going to continue to expect new and fresh exhibits," she said.

`Tone of panic'

Despite the public optimism, several former employees said Leberknight has painted a grimmer picture of the museum's situation internally, referring to Port Discovery as "a sinking ship," "a baseball game that is about to be lost" and "a book whose final pages are yet to be written and which might not have a happy ending."

"He sets a basic tone of panic for the employees," said Pamela Tamondong, who was associate vice president of visitor services until her job was eliminated in May, four days after she returned from maternity leave. "I think the whole thing is doomed, really."

"We're in big trouble here," Leberknight said during two days of budget meetings in April, according to Tamondong, who said she had worked at the museum since it opened. Tamondong attended the budget meetings while on leave.

Leberknight told employees that the museum must make its summer attendance goals or will not have the cash to operate and will have to close in the fall, she and another former employee said.

"He's said if we didn't improve our attendance, the doors would be closed," said the other former employee, who asked not to be identified.

Leberknight acknowledged using those phrases but said his comments were taken out of context. He used such analogies as warnings, he said, to keep people awake during meetings and to instill a sense of urgency.

"I never, ever leave one of these meetings without saying something like, `The ship can't sink, and here's what we need to do to fix it,"' he said. "I'm not a pessimist. I'm an optimist."

He said he has worked since his arrival to instill an increased business sense among museum employees.

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